y Liz Rabiner Lippoff
When I was 50-something, I participated in the adult
Too many cooks can … make it better
b’nai mitzvah program at
Congregation Beth Israel. Then I made a pretty yummy dinner for a few family and friends
who had come to celebrate. My daughter, who was in her 20s at the time, said, “Mom! You are a woman now!”
Portland resident Ken Rubin catered his bar mitzvah, too. His was lunch for 140 people. He, however, was 13 years old. Ken was raised in a foodie family, before it was fashionable.
His grandparents owned a farm, and he says, “My grandmother was 20 years ahead of her time in terms of fresh flavors and farm to table.” His mother, no slouch herself, brought Ken into the kitchen at a very young age. His parents gave him his first 8” Henckels knife when he was 6. By the time he was 9, he was making multicourse family meals. His high school job was in catering. He cannot remember a time when he was not obsessed by food.
He maintains that when he went to Colorado College, he thought he’d study to be a surgeon because he was so good with a knife. I can’t decide if he was pulling my leg or not. In the end, he majored in anthropology and gravitated to studying food in its role as a “cultural phenomenon.”
“People talk now about food culture, but it’s something deeper and richer than just anecdotes and cookbooks,” he says. “People’s food is impacted by religion, customs, geography … I wanted to understand it. Why do we eat one food over another? How do we prepare it and why? How do we teach it to the next generation? How and why do we assign meaning to food?”
Some universities today have food studies programs. New York University was first. Indiana University offers a master’s degree in the Anthropology of Food. But when Ken was in school, all he could do was connect with professors who shared his obsession. Fortunately, he met a professor of Mexican descent who was more than willing to be Ken’s mentor. Ken travelled a good deal and went repeatedly to a small cooking school in Mexico that his professor recommended. The culture of food and the values that drive it were his focus.
“When we talk about food being authentic or not, we assign a value to it based on our perceptions. It’s culturally determined. Taste and smell are the usual senses used to study this. Then people write down what they discover. I tried to develop ways to use photography, interviews and other methodology to study this.” In graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, Ken studied how people learn to cook, but eventually the food itself called out to him.
He spent the next years in a variety of food jobs, including a stint making goat cheese at a raw milk dairy in Texas. There he was tapped by Le Cordon Bleu to help open one of their professional schools locally. “My only experience with actual culinary education was that small school for housewives in Mexico,” he says with a laugh. Nevertheless, he not only launched the Texas school but was promoted to become the number two chef/educator for the North American division at Le Cordon Bleu’s corporate offices in Chicago. With 14 culinary schools, 13,000 students, 750 chef instructors and responsibility for the Internet marketing portal, Ken was a busy guy.
Ken and his wife, Liz, moved to Portland in 2008 to be near family. He left Le Cordon Bleu shortly after the move, dabbled in consulting, opened and ran the Art Institute of Portland’s culinary program, and delved into other kinds of cooking and educating. He became particularly interested in health and wellness cooking for both professionals and ordinary people like you and me. Do you want culinary training because you want to be a better cook, or because you want to be healthier? Either way, where are the holes in the training around healthy food?
Today Ken is the vice president of culinary training for a company called Rouxbe (pronounced roo-bee.) It is a totally online cooking school and resource for cooks of all abilities and ambitions. Users can watch a short video or two, take a multi- video lesson or sign up for a professional certification program. “We are here to build confidence in the kitchen, even if you are scared to boil water,” Ken says.
Some videos are posted for free; after a one-time initiation fee, general site content is available for $5 a month. The site has tens of thousands of regular subscribers in 170 countries and professional certification students in 40 countries. About 10,000 high school students use it to supplement their culinary studies. “Rouxbe has a lot of content packaged and managed, so more serious students can track their progress and participate in an interactive learning community with the support of chefs and other students if they want it,” Ken says. The man loves his job.
“People say that people don’t cook anymore; they don’t sit down at the table together,” Ken explains. “We need to fundamentally re-shift our cultural orientation around cooking. If you lived above a Whole Foods and had plenty of money, you could live well and be healthy, but that’s not universal. You can, though, save money on your food and on your health when you cook.
“We all like to eat! Cooking is also an incredibly human act: it’s joyous and it’s a connection to food and to others. If people just did it, they’d discover they like it.”
Although Ken and Liz have not been particularly active in Portland’s Jewish organizations, they plan to change that. Their sons, Benjamin, 4, and Gabriel, 6, are interested in the traditions and, of course, in the food.
Their 6-year-old is ready for the food part. Gabriel already has his own knife.
Liz Rabiner Lippoff is a freelance writer and a medical marketing consultant. Liz, ink: LizInk.biz.